What is Alternative Sentencing?

Elise Czajkowski

Alternative sentencing is a form of criminal punishment that differs from a traditional sentence. Instead of being incarcerated or given probation, a convicted criminal will often be assigned community service, along with rehabilitation or therapy, as a punishment. Alternative sentencing is often considered for first-time, non-violent offenders.

Judges may order alternative sentencing in lieu of jail for first-time, non-violent offenders.
Judges may order alternative sentencing in lieu of jail for first-time, non-violent offenders.

Advocates for alternative sentencing argue that with prison and jail overcrowding, it is not sensible to incarcerate all criminals. Alternative sentences provide a cheaper way of dealing with the overcrowding of prisons than expanding prison capacity. Imprisoning criminals can be very expensive, and alternative punishments for non-violent criminals is more cost efficient and does not jeopardize the public safety.

Prison overcrowding is part of the reason alternative sentencing is necessary.
Prison overcrowding is part of the reason alternative sentencing is necessary.

Others argue that alternative sentencing is a fairer punishment for many criminals. For many first-time offenders, imprisonment may be too strict and supervised probation too lenient. Alternative sentences allow a middle ground and create a continuum of punishments that is responsive to a range of criminality. For this reason, alternative sentences are sometimes referred to as intermediate or middle-range sanctions.

Community service requirements are a form of alternative sentencing.
Community service requirements are a form of alternative sentencing.

Proponents of alternative sentencing also argue that these options benefit society and are therefore more beneficial to the community at large than punishment for its own sake. Alternative sentencing can give a convict a change to be productive as a member of a community, providing a lesson in acceptable behavior. In some cases, it not only saves the cost of incarcerating the criminal, but the cost of paying for a worker.

Sometimes, alternative sentences are designed as a specific response to the crime. For instance, a drunk driver may be tasked with speaking to school children about the dangers of drunk driving or a convicted person with a law degree may be required to do pro bono legal work. Other times, the offender may be allowed to choose their community-service work, as long as it is documented by a reputable agency. Is it also common for offenders to attend counseling or drug or alcohol rehabilitation as part of an alternative sentence if a judge feels it is necessary.

Opponents of alternative sentencing argue that intermediate sanctions are a "soft option" in response to criminal action and is not sufficient punishment. Others fear that by putting convicted criminals in the community is not safe. Additionally, setting up an alternative sentencing program requires time and money that many communities do not feel is justified.

Alternative sentencing helps reduce jail overcrowding.
Alternative sentencing helps reduce jail overcrowding.

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